How Nashville became a music center

Nashville wasn’t always a thriving place for music and a sociologist examined what led to the transformation:

Since 2005, he has conducted over 300 hours of in-depth interviews with over 75 music professionals in Nashville. He compiled the findings in his new book, “Beyond the Beat: Musician Building Community in Nashville,” released in September 2015…

In order to track the rapid evolution of Nashville, Cornfield examined the city before recording labels arrived. Regional artists — from across the state of Tennessee — had been gathering in Nashville to showcase their musical skills. This large amalgamation of talented local voices allowed Nashville to stand out amongst other Southern music cities.

When record labels sought opportunities in the south in the 1970s, they were pleased to stumble upon the world-class musical production talent harbored in this small city. Cornfield discovered that Nashville mixed opportunity with a rich history, making it attractive to hopeful musicians…

Music City exploded in the 1980s, becoming the country music metropolis that it is now famed to be. As the music industry both expanded and diversified throughout the decade, musicians sought smaller, more intimate audiences, rather than performing for an anonymous mass of a crowd. This way, they no longer had to rely on record labels and could manage the entire music production process themselves.

While such diversification presents opportunities for music professionals, it also made it more difficult for them to establish an occupational community and build a mutual support network. Cornfield makes a point to study this social trend.

Cultural centers and communities don’t just happen: they develop over time (and can also decline over time). Here, it sounds like Nashville was a regional music center that later attracted large actors in the music industry.

I would guess one thing other cities would want to know is how to replicate Nashville’s success in this area. Developing such a niche in a culture industry – whether music, movies, fashion, publishing, or something else – not only provides jobs and tax revenues but leads to visitors, tourists, and a reputation as a happening place. Yet, not every city can be a major player in a culture industry and even the best laid plans don’t necessarily come to fruition.

Cultural differences: British produce popular bands, Americans produce popular solo artists

Here is an interesting musical argument: among the world’s best-selling music artists, Britain is represented by bands while the United States has mainly solo artists.

That fact conforms a rule that becomes more and more noticeable the further down you look on the list of the greatest-selling artist of all time: The biggest bands in the world are British, and the biggest solo artists are North American.

The top 20 artists, in order, are The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, AC/DC, Whitney Houston, The Rolling Stones, Queen, ABBA, The Eagles, U2, Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Aerosmith, Frank Sinatra, and Barbra Streisand. The list is perfectly split between 10 solo artists and 10 groups. Eight of the 10 solo artists are from North America, while eight of the 10 bands are from outside America, the majority being British. Remarkably, the country that invented rock and roll has not produced any of the top seven rock bands. America’s strongest contender, in at No. 8, is often-derided soft-rock stalwarts The Eagles…

It’s hard to avoid wondering whether political/social mores play a role in the dichotomy. America, after all, likes to think of itself as a land of individualists. Elvis, Jackson, and Madonna all came from humble beginnings, surrounded by poverty and family tragedy. They epitomized the American dream, and so you might argue that the more left-leaning Europeans are happier to celebrate the collectivism of a band. If we look to what’s thought to be the most ideologically “right” genre, this theory holds true: Of the 25 greatest selling country-music stars of all time, all are solo artists. The UK’s two bestselling solo stars, meanwhile, do not fit the rags-to-riches mold of the American singers, but are rather privileged virtuosos who were in stage school from a very young age (Phil Collins, Elton John.)

But an arguably sturdier explanation lies in the way those first two giants, Elvis and The Beatles, influenced listeners, musicians, and recording industries in their respective countries. The most-talented aspiring artists on the east side of the Atlantic, from Bono to Freddy Mercury, wanted to be in a band like the Beatles. In the States and Canada everyone from Madonna to Michael Jackson wanted to be the next King.

I’m not sure I buy this final argument. After all, a number of these important early British bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones learned much of their craft from American solo artists like Elvis, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, and others. Every artist in America wanted to be Elvis and every British artist wanted to be like The Beatles?

Another aspect of this is that even solo artists need backing bands and collaborators. It is not like the solo artist does everything alone even if they get much of the credit. Additionally, many bands have more dominant and less dominant members. Many bands have struggled with this as members vie for attention. In the end, perhaps this is more about notions of who gets to take credit for musical achievements: the front person or the collective?

This topic seems ripe for more prolonged study. This argument is based on the top 20 artists of all time and perhaps represents a statistical anomaly compared to a broad slice of chart-toppers. And why not expand the study to other countries who might have even different musical cultures?

The most profitable song is “Margaritaville”

Copyrighting the words of “Margaritaville” as well as trademarking the name has been quite lucrative for Jimmy Buffett:

To think that all of this poured forth from a goofy, three-chord song—a mere 208 words, roughly half the length of this article—written about being lazy and getting drunk. But as Buffett’s Parrothead empire continues to spread, one can’t help but wonder whether a more lucrative song exists. “If there is anything on the same scale as a Margaritaville, it’s not a song—it’s a motion picture,” says Robert Brauneis, a professor of intellectual property at the George Washington University Law School and author of a research paper on Happy Birthday to You, which continues to generate upwards of $2 million a year. “When you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, you have to think in terms of Star Wars, Winnie the Pooh, or Transformers. That’s probably in the same order of magnitude.”

As a recording, Margaritaville doesn’t post stratospheric numbers. After debuting on Buffett’s 1977 album Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude, it peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard 100 charts. According to the 2012 BBC documentary The Richest Songs in the World, Margaritaville doesn’t crack the top 10, which is populated by three Christmas songs. The two highest-ranking pop songs are You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, by the Righteous Brothers, and Yesterday, by the Beatles. (No. 1 was Happy Birthday to You.) “If you want to get technical, there are two Margaritavilles,” says Brauneis. “There’s the copyright that protects the song, which is valuable because of the stream of income. Then there’s the trademark that has developed out of the song’s title, and legally that’s a different piece of intellectual property.”

Of course, this means the song and the brand are separate legal entities and could, in theory, be sold separately. But this isn’t the case. If you want to check Buffett’s tour dates, there’s no JimmyBuffett.com—there’s only Margaritaville.com, where his music career and the rest of his empire are seamlessly melded into one site.

“From a larger business perspective, when you combine the two and look at what the song stands for as a lifestyle and as a branding vehicle,” says Brauneis, “it’s worth far more than Happy Birthday. I can’t think of another example of a song that has that total impact.”

The key here is not really the song itself but the business opportunities the song has led to. This is spectacular branding: Buffett and others have created a sellable lifestyle out of the song and there has been a willing set of consumers willing to eat at the restaurant, buy merchandise, and go to concerts. It is hard to imagine a “Yesterday” themed restaurant – the song is really sort of sad – or one centered around “Happy Birthday” as this is an event that only comes around once a year. Indeed, it would be interesting to see how other artists have tried to capitalize on individual songs and the outcomes of those ventures. Is there any other song that could potentially lead to such financial opportunities? Is this a future source of income for musical artists?

No sociological explanations for “the year of the sitcom”?

A critic suggests we don’t need big sociological explanations to understand why television viewers have returned to sitcoms:

For the Chinese, this is the Year of the Rabbit; to the Jews, it’s 5772. And for journalists covering the TV business? That’s simple: It’s the Year of the Sitcom! Early coverage of the 2011–12 small screen season’s winners and losers has understandably focused on the fact that comedies such as New Girl, Suburgatory, and 2 Broke Girls seem to be doing far better than other kinds of programming this fall. This is what those of us who cover entertainment call a “trend,” and as such, we feel a profound professional responsibility to dig deep and search our souls for the answers: Why laughter? Why now? This will almost certainly result in a dramatic uptick in articles featuring sprawling sociological theories supported by quotes from ubiquitous TV historian Robert J. Thompson and all manner of Hollywood insiders: People want to laugh in a down economy! Comedies only take 30 minutes to watch, and we’re all too busy for dramas! We’ve found a funnier, totally new way to make comedies that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before! But no matter how intelligently the stories are written, or how wise the talking heads doing the explaining might be, the bottom line about TV’s alleged sitcom renaissance is much simpler. It’s just not nearly as interesting…

To understand what’s happening with comedies right now, consider how things often work in the movie business. After X-Men hit big in 2000, Hollywood decided to make Spider-Man and many, many more superhero movies. After audiences demonstrated a willingness to watch girls be gross in Bridesmaids, you could almost hear studio bosses shouting from their offices, “Get me the next Kristen Wiig!” TV is no different; it can just react to trends more quickly. And so, when ABC’s Modern Family rocketed on to TV in 2009, networks suddenly started feeling sitcoms might be worth the risk again, as co-creator Steve Levitan told Variety last summer. “My guess is that programmers see the success of a show like Modern Family and it gives them the impetus, the appetite to program more comedies,” he told the industry trade. This is why, post-MF, CBS decided to roll the dice and try half-hours on Thursdays; Fox chose to double down its efforts at finding live-action laughers by launching an hour-long post-Glee sitcom block; and this fall, new sitcom blocks have popped up on both Tuesdays (ABC) and Wednesdays (NBC). All told, that’s eight new half-hour slots for comedy to try to gain a foothold with viewers. Since TV types love talking in sports metaphors, put it this way: More at-bats generally result in more runners getting on base, and with a little luck, more runs scored. Likewise, while producing lots and lots of comedies is no guarantee of success (NBC once programmed a massive eighteen sitcoms one fall), you’re almost certainly going to up the odds of finding worthwhile new comedies by aggressively playing the game rather than sitting on the bench and hoping reality shows get you the win…

Bottom line? There may be no grand logic behind why sometimes we watch a lot of comedies and other times we waste our time on reality shows or obsess over the personal lives of melodramatic medical practitioners. And often it’s just a matter of finding the right balance of numbers of shows (a glut is a glut) and networks figuring out the best way to schedule them. So let’s all resist the urge to make up sociological or economic explanations for the sitcom’s resurgence. (Thereby freeing up Robert J. Thompson’s day: Hey, Bob, why don’t you and Paul Dergarabedian go whale watching? You deserve a break from all the quoting!) Yes, these are tough times, but they do not necessarily make people more eager to laugh: In boom times, do people come home and say, “I’ve been smiling all day and I’m tired of it: give me something dour to balance me out!” They do not. And viewers are not being lured back by new innovations in comedy: Sure, Zooey Deschanel is a unique personality, but Two and a Half Men remains top-rated, and that’s just The Odd Couple with more erection jokes. (Though who could forget the Odd Couple classic, “Felix gets his junk caught in his tie-clip case”?) As ever, trends are just another way of saying that success breeds imitation, whether it’s comedies, dramas, movies, or Angus hamburgers — available for a limited time only!

A few thoughts:

1. So the best explanation is that TV networks have simply put more sitcoms out there and several have caught on? This Moneyball-esque explanation (you are bound to have more hit shows if you simply put more out there!) could have some merit. Think about the music, movie, book publishing, and TV industries. The companies behind the products have little idea which particular products will prove successful and so they throw all sorts of options at the public. To have a successful year within each industry, only a few of these products have to have spectacular success. Essentially, these few popular ones can subsidize the rest of the industry. There is no magic formula for writing a successful sitcom, movie, book, or album so companies throw a lot of products at the wall and see what sticks.

2. A note: those people peddling “sprawling sociological theories” sound like they are not sociologists but rather “pop sociologists.” To really get at this issue, we would have to compare success of different genres over time to try to see if there is a relationship between genre and social circumstances at the time. Yes, I agree that people can be quick to find big explanations for new phenomena…and do so without consulting any data. Knee-jerk reactions are not too helpful.

3. At the same time, one might argue that the tastes of the public guided or at least prompted by some of these sociological factors. While there are no set formulas, won’t “good shows” win out? Not in all circumstances – think of the “critical darlings” versus those that end up being popular. Perhaps we need to ask a different question: how do shows become popular? What kind of marketing campaigns pull people in and how does effective “word of mouth” spread?